by Jessica Northey and Latefa Narriman Guemar
Friday 22 February 2019 will be seen as a new chapter in Algeria’s long history of revolution and struggle, as massive peaceful protests took place across all major cities of the country. Starting tentatively on Friday afternoon, the protests gradually gained momentum as thousands of people, including men, women and children were peacefully marching, singing their national anthem and waving Algerian flags. This happened despite a complete ban on marching in the capital since 2001. On Friday, Algerians stood up to have their voices heard.
With the memory of violent repression of popular demonstrations, and Algeria’s Black Decade where hundreds of thousands of Algerians lost their lives, still weighing on the country, taking the decision to march in a political protest is not an easy one.
Why are they marching?
After weeks of uncertainty as to whether the ailing 81 year old President Bouteflika would stand yet again in a fifth election, the announcement by the FLN to launch his presidential campaign, brought deep unhappiness and dismay to many Algerians.
There are many reasons why people took to the streets. The Constitution was revised by Bouteflika himself in 2016 to limit presidential mandates to two terms, the FLN has ruled Algeria since Independence in 1962, there is a lack of governance and rule of law, and opportunities for young people are restricted by a small oligarchy that continues to monopolize power. These are just some of many motivations for people to protest.
Algerians have responded en masse, without violence or division. Sectarian slogans, Islamist calls, political parties and divisive messages were absent this Friday. Shouts of ‘Chaab w chorta, khawa, khawa’ (demonstrators and police are brothers) may have contributed to the relative absence of police repression. ‘Joumhouria machi Mamlaka’ (A republic not a monarchy) was another shout recalling the republican nature of Algeria, a cause for which more than a million people died during the war of liberation, including thousands of women. Indeed, and as on all occasions when Algeria appealed to its citizens, Algerian women are present, and their struggle remains crucial: to build, side by side with the Algerian men, a modern and republican Algeria in which the rights of each will ultimately be respected.
From Chlef, to Bejaia, to Algiers, women marched, reminding us of the importance of their regaining their rights to the city and citizenship. Women in the Diaspora, including large numbers of young women, also protested in Paris, Marseille, Montreal and London to support their peers back home in their protest to out the “Issaba” (Bandits). In London, a woman insisted on taking the microphone to lead the protest saying: not only do we not want a fifth term of Bouteflika, but we request radical reforms of Algerian governance of today.
Although it might appear to be, Algeria is not a dictatorship. Bouteflika is not hated, with demonstrators even wishing him good health. However, ordinary Algerians and young people in particular have simply had enough of the status quo, and of the inability of their political leaders – similar to so many countries across the world – who are unable to find solutions for a vibrant, intelligent and creative young society. This is a protest for justice, rule of law, equality, good governance and better politics. Young people want and deserve to have a place in the political, social and economic life of Algeria to build a brighter future for their country. Over the last ten years, they have done this painstakingly outside of the political sphere, through associational activism, through journalism and through community action – but this is not enough.
Nobody knows what happens next. These national, spontaneous, well-organised and principled demonstrations sow great hope amongst all Algerians at home and abroad. They also fear that the western media will misrepresent this important moment in Algerian history. Politics has already changed and will continue to do so. Algerians have been left to feel humiliated by the ruling elite for too long. They have now stood up to this arrogance and humiliation. Power has to be shared, it has to be honest and needs integrity, in line with the principles of Algeria’s founding Revolution in 1954 against colonialism. The voice of the people once again will have to be heard.